World War I, Gold Standard, German Reparations, Hyperinflation, Credit-Anstalt, Keynesian Policies and the Great Depression

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 13th, 2012

History 101

Nations abandoned the Gold Standard to Borrow and Print Money freely to pay for World War I 

Banks loan to each other.  They participate in a banking system that moves capital from those who have it to those who need it.  It’s a good system.  And a system that works.  Providing businesses and entrepreneurs with the capital to expand their businesses.  And create jobs.  As long as all the banks in the system go about their business responsibly.  And their governments go about their business responsibly.  Sadly, neither always does.

World War I changed the world in so many ways for the worse.  It killed a generation of Europeans.  Bankrupted nations.  Redrew the borders in Europe as the victors divvied up the spoils of war.  Setting the stage for future political unrest.  Gave us Keynesian economics.  Saw the beginning of the decline of the gold standard.  A deterioration of international trade.  A rise of protectionism and nationalism.  Punishing German reparations.  To pay for a war that they didn’t necessarily start.  Nor did they necessarily lose.  Which created a lot of anger in Germany.  And provided the seed for the Great Depression.

A set of entangling treaties brought nations eagerly into World War I.  There was great patriotic fervor.  And a belief that this war would be Napoleonic.  Some glorious battles.  With the victors negotiating a favorable peace.  Sadly, no one learned the lessons of the Crimean War (1853-1856).  Which killed approximately 600,000 (about 35% of those in uniform).  Or the American Civil War (1861-1865).  Which killed approximately 600,000 (about 20% of those in uniform).  The first modern wars.  Where the technology was ahead of the Napoleonic tactics of the day.  Modern rifled weapons made accurate killing weapons.  And the telegraph and the railroads allowed the combatants to rush ever more men into the fire of those accurate killing weapons.  These are the lessons they didn’t learn.  Which was a pity.  Because the weapons were much more lethal in World War I (1914-1918).  And far more advanced than the tactics of the day.  Which were still largely Napoleonic.  Mass men on the field of battle.  Fire and advance.  And close with the bayonet.  Which they did in World War I.  And these soldiers advanced into the withering fire of the new machine gun.  While artillery rounds fell around them.  Making big holes and throwing shredded shrapnel through flesh and bone.  WWI killed approximately 10,000,000 (about 15% of those in uniform).  And wounded another 20 million.  To do that kind of damage costs a lot of money.  Big money.  For bullets, shells, rifles, artillery, machine guns, warships, planes, etc., don’t grow on trees.  Which is why all nations (except the U.S.) went off of the gold standard to pay for this war.  To shake off any constraints to their ability to raise the money to wage war.  To let them borrow and print as much as they wanted.  Despite the effect that would have on their currency.  Or on foreign exchange rates.

As Countries abandoned the Gold Standard they depreciated their Currencies and wiped out People’s Life Savings

Well, the war had all but bankrupted the combatants.  They had huge debts and inflated currencies.  Large trade deficits.  And surpluses.  A great imbalance of trade.  And it was in this environment that they restored some measure of a gold standard.  Which wasn’t quite standard.  As the different nations adopted different exchange rates.  But they moved to get their financial houses back in order.  And the first order of business was to address those large debts.  And the ‘victors’ decided to squeeze Germany to pay some of that debt off.  Hence those punishing reparations.  Which the victors wanted in gold.  Or foreign currency.  Which made it difficult for Germany to return to the gold standard.  As the victors had taken most of her gold.  And so began the hyperinflation.  As the Germans printed Marks to trade for foreign currency.  Of course we know what happened next.  They devalued the Mark so much that it took wheelbarrows full of them to buy their groceries.  And to exchange for foreign currency.

Elsewhere, in the new Europe that emerged from WWI, there was a growth in regional banking.  Savvy bankers who were pretty good at risk evaluation.  Who were close to the borrowers.  And informed.  Allowing them to write good loans.  Meanwhile, the old institutions were carrying on as if it was still 1914.  Not quite as savvy.  And making bad loans.  The ones the more savvy bankers refused to write.  Weak banking regulation helped facilitate these bad lending practices.  Leaving a lot of banks with weak balance sheets.  Add in the hyperinflation.  Heavy debts.  Higher taxes (to reduce those debts).  Trade imbalances.  And you get a bad economy.  Where businesses were struggling to service their debt.  With many defaulting.  As a smaller bank failed a bigger bank would absorb it.  Bad loans and all.  Including an Austrian bank.  A pretty big one at that.  The largest in Austria.  Credit-Anstalt.  Which was ‘too big to fail’.  But failed anyway.  And when it did the collapse was heard around the world. 

As banks failed the money supply contracted.  Causing a liquidity crisis.  And deflation (less money chasing the same amount of goods).  Currency appreciation (further hurting a country’s balance of trade).  And low prices.  Which made it harder for borrowers to service their debt with the lower revenue they earned on those lower prices.  So there were more loan defaults.  Bank runs.  And bank failures.  Spreading the contagion to Amsterdam.  To Warsaw.  Germany.  Latvia.  Turkey.  Egypt.  Britain.  Even the U.S.  Soon countries abandoned the gold standard.  So they could print money to save the banks.  Lower interest rates.  Depreciate their currencies.  And wipe out large swathes of wealth denominated in that now depreciated currency.  What we call Keynesian policies.  People’s life savings became a fraction of what they were.  Making for a longer working life.  And a more Spartan retirement. 

Abandoning the Gold Standard didn’t fix the U.S. Economy in 1971

Meanwhile in the U.S. the government was destroying the U.S. economy.  Trying to protect domestic prices they passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Raising the price for businesses and consumers alike.  And kicking off a trade war.  Both of which greatly reduced U.S. exports.  New labor legislation keeping wages above market prices while all other prices were falling.  And higher taxes to pay for New Deal social programs.  Wiping out business profits and causing massive unemployment.  Then came the fall in farm prices due to increased farm productivity.  Thanks to farmers mechanizing their farms and greatly increasing their harvests.  Thus lowering prices.  Making it hard to service the bank loans they got to pay for that mechanization.  Thus leading to bank failures in the farming regions.  That spread to the cities.  Causing a liquidity crisis.  And deflation.

Then came Credit-Anstalt.  And all the woe that followed.  Which caused a speculative run in Britain.  Which made the British decide to leave the gold standard.  To stem the flow of gold out of their country.  Which destroyed whatever confidence was still remaining in their banking system.  People thought that the U.S. would be next.  But the Americans defended the dollar.  And instead raised interest rates (by reducing the money supply).  To keep the dollar valuable.  And to protect the exchange rate.  Making it less attractive to exchange cash for gold.  And to restore confidence in the banking system.  Of course, this didn’t help the liquidity crisis.  Which Keynesians blame for the length and the severity of the Great Depression.

Of course, it wasn’t the gold standard that caused the fall of Credit-Anstalt.  It was poor lending practices.  A weak banking regulation that allowed those poor lending practices.  And a lot of bad government policy throughout Europe.  Especially those punishing German reparations.  And the gold standard didn’t cause the economic collapse in the United States.  For it worked well the previous decade.  Providing all the capital required to produce the Roaring Twenties that modernized the world.  It was government and their intrusive policies into the free market that caused the economic collapse.  And abandoning the gold standard wouldn’t have changed that.  Or made the economy better.  And we know this because leaving the gold standard didn’t solve all of the countries woes in 1971.  Because the government was still implementing bad Keynesian policies.

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FT103: “If General Grant used Keynesian tactics he wouldn’t have given up the attack on Cold Harbor until all of his soldiers were dead.” Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 3rd, 2012

Fundamental Truth

On the Eve of Cold Harbor Grizzled Union Veterans pinned Scraps of Paper with their Names and Home Cities Inside their Jackets

General Grant has a few reputations.  That he was a drunk.  He wasn’t.  He just couldn’t hold his liquor.  And he hated inactivity.  And being away from his family.  Two things that led him to drink.  They also called him a butcher.  That he cared little for his men.  Which wasn’t true.  The bloodiest single day of battle in the Civil War was the Battle of Antietam.  Grant wasn’t there.  The bloodiest battle was the three days at Gettysburg.  Grant wasn’t there.  One of the greatest Union defeats was at Fredericksburg.  Grant wasn’t there.  So it wasn’t Grant.  It was the tactics used in the Civil War.  Napoleonic tactics.  Massing great ranks of soldiers opposite great ranks of soldiers.  Fire a few shots.  Close in on each other.  Then finish the job with the bayonet.  And plenty of finishing was needed as those Napoleonic weapons weren’t rifled.  Or all that accurate.

The weapons were rifled, though, in the American Civil War.  And far more accurate.  So they killed a lot of soldiers as they massed and fired.  And killed even more as they closed in to finish the job.  They soon learned that massing troops in the open on the field of battle was not a good idea.  Instead they looked for good ground to defend.  At Antietam there was a sunken road in the center of the Confederate line.  One of the first trenches used in warfare.  Lee failed at Gettysburg because General Ewell failed to take the high ground on the eve of the first day of battle.  Over night the Union entrenched strong defensive positions.  That held for days 2 and 3.  At Fredericksburg there was another sunken road.  This one was behind a stone wall.  It was also on the high ground.  And that’s where the Confederates were when the Union attacked.  And lost the battle.

General Lee was a combat engineer in the Mexican War.  Some called him the King of Spades.  So fortifying defensive positions was something he was good at.  And became better at.  Building breastworks.  Which even the odds in battle when a numerically superior force attacks a smaller entrenched force.  Like at Cold Harbor.  Where the breastworks zigzagged for 5 miles.  Allowing the defenders to shoot into the front of the attacking force.  As well as into the side of the attacking force.  Which is why on the eve of battle the grizzled veterans in the Union Army pinned scraps of paper with their names and home cities inside their jackets.  An early dog tag.  So when they attacked those heavily fortified defensive positions in the morning their surviving comrades could identify their bodies and send them home to family for burial.  Which, sadly, proved very useful after the battle.

The Problem with Keynesian Economics is that it interferes with Market Prices causing Inflation and Bubbles

The attack was over in less than an hour.  Seven thousand Union soldiers fell killed or wounded.  Grant regretted his order to attack until his dying day.  And he wouldn’t give such an order again.  Because he learned the folly of attacking entrenched positions.  And began adjusting his tactics to match the technology of the battlefield.

Sometimes it’s easier to identify failed policies in war.  It may have taken some time.  But it eventually became clear.  For when the casualty rates soared people were less willing to send their sons off to war.  Making the cost of those failed policies very real.  And personal.  Not abstract numbers.  Like in economics.  Where few understand what Keynesian economics is.  Or how to identify if these policies work.  Or if they fail.  For if you listen to Keynesian economists they never fail.  And when they do it’s not because they’re wrong.  It’s because those using them weren’t bold enough.  Such as using a Keynesian economic stimulus to pull an economy out of a recession.  It didn’t work in the Seventies.  And it didn’t work in the most recent recession.  The Great Recession.  And how do Keynesians explain this failure?  The economic stimulus wasn’t big enough.

The problem with Keynesian economics is that it interferes with the market forces.  By denying reality.  The business cycle.  The cycle between good economic times and bad economic times.  From periods of expanding economic activity to periods of contracting economic activity.  It’s this second half of the business cycle that Keynesians were especially trying to deny.  Recessions.  Those things that correct prices at the end of a growth cycle.  Before inflation can set in and wreak its havoc.  And when Keynesians interfere with this market mechanism the market doesn’t correct prices before inflation sets in.  So prices keep rising.  And they create asset bubbles.  Like housing bubbles.  Like the one that led up to the Subprime Mortgage Crisis.  And because Keynesians interfered all they did was delay the inevitable.  Allowing prices to rise higher than they normally would have.  Which meant they had further to fall.  Creating a longer and more painful recession than there would have been had they not interfered.

Unlike a Keynesian, General Grant Recognized a Failed Policy and Stopped Using It

Keynesians try to reduce economics down to a set of mathematical equations.  That they accept on faith.  Blinded by their ideology.  And refuse to recognize their failure.  Which is why they continue to interfere with market forces.  And continue to make recessions longer and more painful than they need be.  While strewing a swath of economic destruction in their path.  Like all of those home owners who lost so much value in their houses that their mortgages are now greater than the market price of their house.  Many lost their retirement nest egg in the process.  Some even had to alter their retirement plans because of their losses.  Or go back to work in their retirement.

These aren’t bodies littering a battlefield.  But the Keynesian carnage has destroyed lives just the same.  Impoverishing future generations to pay for their inept policies.  For people not even born today will have a tax bill so great that it will diminish their living standard far below what we enjoy today.  As bad as that is what’s worse is that they don’t change their policies after these failures.  Believing that the only reason they’ve failed is because they didn’t try them on a grand enough scale.  Or the government quit them before they had a chance to work. 

Thankfully General Grant didn’t use such Keynesian thinking at Cold Harbor.  Had he used such reasoning he would have ordered a second assault.  And a third. And kept ordering them as long as he had living men to send in against that entrenched defense.  But he didn’t.  Why?  Because he was smarter than a Keynesian.  He recognized a failed policy.  And stopped using it.

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